signed ‘L. Ufan '10’ (on the lower right side); signed ‘Lee ufan’, titled ‘Dialogue’ and dated ‘2010’ (on the reverse)
oil and mineral pigment and glue on canvas
227 x 182 cm. (89 3/8 x 71 5/8 in.)
Painted in 2010
SCAI The Bathhouse, Tokyo, Japan
Private Collection, Asia
Anon. sale, Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 6 April 2014, Lot 846
Private Collection, Asia (acquired from the above sale by the present owner)

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Kimmy Lau
Kimmy Lau

Lot Essay

A minimalist painter and key player in Korea’s Dansaekhwa movement, a leading art theorist of Japan’s Mono-ha group, a philosopher who is equally versed in Western philosophy and Eastern ideology—it seems that Lee’s illustrious and peripatetic career defies any single category or label, just as Lee himself transcends any one nationality, practice, or movement.

It is only fitting that central tenant of Lee’s work is a call for “coexistence,” a fluid, respectful, and non-hierarchical encounter between the self and the other, East and West, the inner and outer worlds. Critically recognized for his unique and tenacious approach to breaking the boundary of modernist formalism in painting and sculpture, Lee Ufan has an equally crucial influence on his contemporaries, both artists and art theorists alike. He will undoubtedly remain in the annals of art history as a master who expanded the definition of modern sculpture and abstract painting, as well as a philosopher that advocated for coexistence in a time of cultural conflict, war, and ideological tension.

Born in Japanese-colonized Korea at the height of the Pacific War in 1936, Lee Ufan witnessed early-on the conflict and exploitation that was a byproduct of the colonial occupation. Moreover, following the liberation from Japanese rule in 1945, Korea was immediately swept up by the escalating tensions of the Cold War, which eventually culminated in the Korean War. Growing up as a child in this turbulent political environment, Lee Ufan was immensely interested in books on classical Korean literature, world literature and socialist political thought. This was also the period in which he was first introduced to Daoist and Buddhist notions of the oneness of self and existence. Coupled with classes in calligraphy, poetry, and painting with a Chinese classics scholar, his early education was infused with the literati principles and eastern philosophy that would later be integrated into his artistic practice.

In 1956, Lee moved to Japan to care for his ailing uncle and pursued his academic studies in philosophy at Nihon University. Building on the foundation set during his early artistic training as well as inspirations from Sekin Nobuo’s radical installation, Phase – Mother Earth , Lee began to experiment with abstract paintings and installations. (Fig. 1) His first solo exhibition in 1967 garnered great foreign interest and he was invited to participate in a myriad of exhibitions and biennials overseas, including Documenta VI in 1977 and Sao Paulo Art Biennial in 1969 and 1973. (Fig. 2) During the 1970s, he also set up a studio in Paris following a criticallyacclaimed exhibition of his works in the city. His itinerant career led him to discover the failures of the modernist ideals of progress and rationalism in the face of genocide, nuclear holocaust, frenzied industrialization, and hyper-capitalism. Moreover, with his identity being tied to Korea and Japan, as well as the West, Lee constantly found himself rejected as an outsider or the “other” in each of the places he called home. Thus, it seems to be natural that Lee himself rejected the modern rationalist worldview which argued for a world with rigidly fixed meaning. Interestingly, his work resonated with the postmodern practices of artists working across the world at the same time. Looking to the Modernism movement that came before, especially the Abstract Expressionist movement that centered on Jackson Pollock’s action paintings, these postmodernist painters rejected this means of creating that emphasized the artist’s power over the material. Instead, artists of this time sought for a more emphatic relationship with the world around them. Like Richard Serra’s sculptural practices that rejected illusionism, expressionism and modernist notions of the creative self, Lee’s work also called for a more physical experience between the forces of the body, material, time and space. (Fig. 3) Yet, as a philosopher-artist, Lee’s bodily exploration of form and space in his works are also heavily influenced by the western phenomenology of Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merlaeu-Ponty and Emmanuel Levinas. In his works, he often aims to create a transcendental world that forgoes any existence of presupposed universal truths or privileged domination of subject over passive object. Instead, what remains in this artistic practice is a communal conversation between him and the medium.

“When I make a brush mark on the canvas, I hold my breath, I concentrate and I pray that my hand, the brush and the canvas will be in harmony.”
– Lee Ufan

Lee’s Dialogue series has evolved out of his previous Correspondence series, emerging as a complete embrace of the Korean Dansaekhwa movement which began in 1970s. Challenging the uncritical acceptance of Western Modernism during that time, Dansaekhwa artists looked beyond the last forty years of formalism for a distinct form of abstraction that focused on the spirituality of colour and the performance of painting. Characteristic of this series, Dialogue (Lot 41) is painted on a white background using a monochrome colour. With a wide-tipped brush and a refined gradation of thick pigment, Lee would layer his strokes three or four times over a period of days, applying a new layer of paint onto a half-wet layer. (Fig. 4) The laborious and highly specific process often takes the artist one month of repetitive action to complete a new work. This highly choreographed and deliberate movement of the brush echoes the practice of Chinese ink painting—great masters were said to have controlled and concentrated on every movement of the body, including their breathing, to compose their works. Most often, Lee’s practice is re-contextualized into a western narrative, mostly compared to the level of precision shown in the works of Agnes Martin. (Fig. 5) Yet, his works are imbued with a certain depth and vitality whose roots trace back to Lee’s early literati training in classical Chinese art. These compositions communicate a hope for simplicity, peace, and understanding that stems from the artist’s personal trauma and philosophical beliefs. It is in this simplicity of form, material, and action that Lee Ufan’s works expand the artistic dialogue of contemporary art. With a new fusion of identity and experiences, Lee Ufan’s painting demonstrates a possibility for a solely distinct Asian contemporary artistic language that declares itself independent from and entirely equal to the Western model.

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